My Holiday in the Peak District, day seven

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeDay 1, 2, 3, 4am, 4pm.

It is some time since I have had the opportunity to write. There has been so much to do, and the days have blurred into one another. My mind has been pre-occupied not only with that strange subterranean drumming – an incessant thrum that now seems to accompany me everywhere – and that monstrous visage, but also with the task which Charteris has set me. In order to pursue it, I have set aside, albeit temporarily and with much anguish, my translation of the codex.

You see, around the walls of that chamber are arranged twelve tablets, spaced equidistantly. The writing carved in each of them is in a language predating the text recorded in the codex, but clearly (I think) an ancestor to it. If MacReady and Dyson are correct, it dates from before the well-known proto-Elamite script and the controversial Dispilio Tablet, and even before the Vinča and Jiahu symbols that only a canting professional courtesy dares call ‘writing systems’.

My unease disappeared as I pored over the antediluvian writing, clumsily attempting to transcribe it while holding a torch. ‘We already have complete 3-D scans of them,’ Charteris said. I put  my pen and pad away and just spend time taking in this wondrous find.

Each day I return to the chamber for a while to read the actual characters, but most of my time is now spent with a print-out of the scans, familiarising myself with this most ancient of tongues, beginning the laborious process of comparison, hypothesis and deduction, all of it tentative, most of it destined to being discarded. Charteris, not seeming to grasp that this is a life’s work, urges me on to premature and incautious attempts at rendering the script in English.

For all that my days now possess a common pattern, I continue to be disturbed and agitated. The scratching within the walls now follows me throughout the house. The squirrel continues to feed whatever it is in her nest. That dark shape lurks on in the orchard, and at the edge of my vision that white creature flits away before I can take it in. I realise I do not know the difference between stoats and ferrets and weasels and mink – could it be one of them? According to local miners’ superstition, a white hare is an ill-omened creature, presaging catastrophe. They say something similar about seeing a large black dog. I try not to think about it.

The rain is incessant now. It hangs in the air like a shroud.

Each morning as I focus on the ancient text, I become lost in concentration. MacReady and Dyson have both essayed repetitions of Charteris’s prank. On consecutive days, one or other of them stood over over me with a concerned expression on his face as if he had just woken me from an unearthly possession and dire incantations. Charteris brushed them away, making it clear I will not be chaffed in this way, but he too looks at me oddly.

This morning they are unable to continue such foolishness. When they come down from their beds, they find me pacing the kitchen floor in deep distress.

I had arisen early, as is my wont, and thrown back the curtains in my room. The squirrel was squatting there, just outside my window, as if waiting for me. I swear she looked directly at me, her rheumy eyes glaring coldly, as she raised her paws to her mouth and began to eat. Whatever she held was still alive, wiggling, screeching in pain as she gnawed at it. Once it ceased to move, she discarded it, and darted back to her nest. Just as I began to make out the form of her prey, she returned and repeated the performance. She did this six times. I watched in horror as she killed, partially consumed her young and scattered their corpses indifferently around her.

Sweetened tea was unable to quell the sickness mounting within me.

As I told the others about it, MacReady put on his coat and boots and set out to the farm for the day’s supplies. Within moments he returned, more pallid and shaken I suspect than even I had been this morning. ‘You have to come and see this. All of you.’

Outside, surrounding the cottage in a nearly perfect circle there is a ring of dead animals and birds, torn out of shape, ragged and distended, shattered; many are beyond even the most rudimentary of identifications.

We do not even try to formulate explanations.

We are stranded on an island in a blood-thirsty sea, our high-water mark limning the outline of some indiscriminate biological pogrom. The air reeks of a desperate foreshadowing.

Day 11

 

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My Holiday in the Peak District, day four (afternoon)

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeDay 1, 2, 3, 4 (morning).

Once my repulsion at that vile mycelium was more fully under control and I felt better composed, we walked back down towards the lower village through a thin drizzle.

The ground was uneven. It had once been a continuation of the single road that ran into Lower Wirklesworth, connecting it to the higher village, but it had been torn up some time in the middle of the last century – a desperate effort, it seemed, to disconnect Upper Wirklesworth from the world.

Charteris told me what little he had been able to find out about that secret military unit. During the Second World War some of the original team had returned to the still-deserted village, embedded within an advanced radar group, or the semblance of one, but something went wrong just a few weeks after their arrival. According to various sources, mysterious lights in the sky were seen by witnesses as much as thirty miles away, but stories of these sightings were suppressed before they could make the national press and local papers recanted, dismissing the phenomena as nothing more than Luftwaffe bombers wandering off course and the staunch response of quickly scrambled Hurricanes.

That same night, an infernal white fire burned through Upper Wirklesworth, killing everyone stationed there. The army turned up within hours and sealed the place off, apparently never venturing inside, content merely to maintain a cordon – or too scared to do more than that. They held that perimeter until long after most chaps had been demobbed, and then as they left tore the road up behind them

‘There is more,’ Charteris said. ‘The ground beneath us is riddled with tunnels. Old lead mines, secret passages carved – I kid you not – between public houses by the miners themselves. A lot of drinking, it seems, happened underground, outside of regular hours, and especially on the Sabbath. And there are said to be tunnels far older than that. The usual legends of knockers, of lone miners found dead in side passages, the bruises on their neck evidence not of asphyxiation but of strangulation by trolls. All that sort of thing. And there is one tunnel that runs directly from beneath the altar in the church above us to the crypt in the church down there. There is a story of two brothers who lost their lives deliberately collapsing it so as to prevent some ancient evil. Back in the 1850s, the antiquary Thomas Bateman – the tumuli archaelogist, the Barrow Knight – entered it as one end and found it blocked by a rockfall, and then did the same at the other end. He intended to clear it, but died in 1861 before he could make a start, which is probably just as well, what with his tendency to destroy sites as he uncovered them. There is no record of such an excavation taking place, or indeed of them being sealed off. But when Sprake and I opened up the tunnel and ventured into it, the route was clear from one end to the other. The walls are scorched like those in the village above, almost smooth, apart from streaks of Galena, and thick matted ropes of the protoplasmic filaments – the hyphae – of that mycological abomination.’

I confess, I knew not what to make of this seemingly random concatenation of information, superstition, supposition and legend. Charteris was fastidious about not drawing connections or making fanciful claims. It was as if he wanted to present me with evidence as impartially as he could, and yet the very fact that he seemed to give the same weight to all these incommensurable modalities of data could not help but imply he that he believed them all equally – and that they we all linked together in some bigger picture. I decided to keep my own counsel. I feared he was losing his mind.

Next, he took me to the church, or, rather, beneath it, into the crypt, where MacReady and Dyson were taking a break from their scientific, perhaps pseudoscientific, labours.

Charteris showed me where he and Sprake had exposed the bricked up entrance to the tunnel that, so he claimed, led to the church at the top of the hill. I did not feel it warranted further exploration by me at that point. In truth, I was still feeling somewhat uneasy.

It was not the only entrance they had found hidden in the crypt. A second one led to steps that curved down to another, far more ancient crypt. Even in the poor light of the torches we carried, it was obviously a pre-Christian excavation. Deep inside me I felt, with a certainty my scientific mind struggled to reject, that it was crafted many millennia before that saviour in whose ways my parents tried to instruct me had walked among his human creations.

Charteris told me to keep my beam aimed at the floor. I felt sure it was a ploy to help him stage some theatrical monstration, but I complied. After maybe a dozen yards, he stopped and signalled me to do the same

‘Where we are standing now,’ he said, pointing at a chalk mark etched on the rock by our feet, ‘is the very centre of the cavern, of this ancient temple.’

Before I could object to his claim as to the nature of the site, which was as yet I felt unwarranted, he took me by the wrist and pulled my hand down to the floor. ‘Feel that.’

From some incalculable distance, deep within the Earth, came a distinct vibration and then, at regular intervals, a pulse, a throb, both natural and profoundly wrong, like the heartbeat of some vast and alien machine or slumbering god.

My mind reeled.

‘One last thing,’ Charteris said. ‘I first came here because of a dream. It haunted me. I saw… I thought at first I was being summoned, but I found myself with no will to resist. I was compelled here…by that!’

He swung up his torch to the wall ahead of us. In the stone was carved – though something told me that it was not carved – a gargantuan abhuman face.

It was not the bobbing torchlight that made it seem alive.

Day 7

My Holiday in the Peak District, day four (morning)

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeDay one, two, three.

It seems I am destined to sleep poorly and rise early in this narrow house. The apprehension that it was something other than I that had been summoned here filled me with dread, leaving me enervated but too anxious to sleep; and towards dawn that infernal scratching started in the walls again, and to my horror seemed now also rise from beneath the floorboards.

Making the best of a bad situation I elected to work on the translation while drinking honeyed tea. Outside the kitchen there was no sign of the squirrel, yet as I stared out into the orchard waiting for the kettle to boil I swear I saw something moving – a large black dog? – among the stunted trees. Although they are as evenly spaced as one would expect, their low twisted branches suggest a profound disorder, an impenetrable tangle. I was unsure if it was a barrier protecting us from that glimpsed dark shape, or an enclosure from which one day we might find ourselves in urgent need of escape.

I set such thoughts aside and forced myself to make steady progress with the codex, aided by a growing certainty that the original translation was a cunning sleight-of-hand. Why my predecessor felt the need to produce such an elaborate layering of misdirections – a series of Chinese boxes that neatly switched into a finger-trap for the mind – was beyond me. I would need to spend some time working through his cyphered journals in order to proffer a plausible explanation in the scholarly apparatus that would accompany my new translation. The prospect of this additional labour was frustrating, but the solid steady work it represented also appealed to my equable temperament and the tendency towards careful and deliberate effort that lingered on in me, one of the final vestiges of my Protestant upbringing, along with my thrift and general abstemiousness – values rarely valued any more.

I came to with a start to find Charteris gently shaking my shoulder. I must have nodded briefly over my papers, but for some reason Charteris took it as an opportunity to essay a quite feeble prank. Putting on a worried face, he implied that he had found me in a trance-like state, tracing a line of characters in the codex and pronouncing aloud those ancient, inhuman words from a language which has not been heard on this world in millennia. I scoffed at his lamentable joke and made clear that I found it to be in poor taste and that I considered such mockery to be unacceptable. He relented with an apology whose sincerity I could not judge.

MacReady and Dyson left soon after breakfast, and Charteris assured me that today he would finally begin to explain why he had invited me to join them in this awful place. First, however, he had to attend to Sprake, who was leaving us to lodge under the care of a physician who ran a kind of sanitorium some miles away. ‘A good chap, very well qualified to take on a case like this,’ Charteris explained. ‘In addition to his regular practice, he has devoted himself to transcendental medicine.’

Still annoyed with him, I was unwilling to reveal my ignorance as to what that curious phrase might mean.

I was completing my ablutions when Dr Raymond arrived, a middle-aged man, gaunt and thin, of a pale yellow complexion. I chose to wait until Sprake had been bundled into his car and whisked away before returning to the kitchen.

Charteris was all business. Since yesterday’s weather prevented me from visiting the site of Upper Wirklesworth, that is where we would begin. We walked briskly, skirting the lower village and climbing quickly to the older village overlooking the valley. It had once been the more prosperous of the two, with none of the meanness or inhibiting closeness of its younger sibling below, but now it was in ruins. There was not a roof or window or door to be found among the tumble-down walls, and what few traces of wood remained were blackened tokens of some forgotten conflagration. Apparently, the place had been requisitioned during the First World War by a secretive military unit involved in scientific work of some sort. Covert weapons development, I assumed, and wondered whether experimentation with chemical or biological weapons had contributed to the weird wrongness of the valley people, but Charteris was going on at some length about occultists, numeromancers and other such nonsense.

Breaking away from his absurdities, I took a look inside one of the ruins – a large house with thick walls – and reeled back nauseated by what lay within. The walls were covered with a pale squamous growth, fleshy, fungal and clogged with the corpses of mice and rats and birds which it seemed to be in the process of digesting. The floor was a carpeted with feathers and small, bleached bones. A cloying smell, sweet with corruption, choked the air. A thin bile rose and clogged my throat. Black flies rose up in clouds at my interruption. I spat repeatedly to rid my mouth of the taste.

Out of the corner of my eye, as I turned to face Charteris, who was making apologetic noises for not warning me, a long white furred creature darted through the grassy bank and into the nettles on the far side of the road. It moved so quickly I could not make out what it was.

Charteris rested a gentle hand on my shoulder and offered me his water bottle.

More than a little ashamed by my reaction, I forced my voice to adopt the measured tone of a professional academic. ‘What is that stuff?’ I asked. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’

‘Neither, if Dyson is to be trusted, has anyone else.’

Day 4 (afternoon)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day three

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeDay one, two.

I have much to report, yet of substance little.

When Charteris finally stirred he was much preoccupied with Sprake. All that could be gathered from the latter’s ramblings and peculiar reticence was that he had left the pub in the company of the barmaid, but that something had intervened in their dalliance. Something that caused him to reel away in such horror that he was left with no conscious capability, merely an instinct that returned him to us.

It was MacReady’s turn to collect supplies from the farm. It was a daily chore, Dyson explained, because the food did not last. He showed me the apples left over from last night, shrivelled now and wormy, then threw them away.

On MacReady’s return we breakfasted, in silence except for when the muttering audible from Sprake’s room rose in volume or pitch, prompting us to drown it out as best we could with meaningless but loud conversation. The others were still intent on keeping something from me, and once our brief meal was over they hastened to leave about their day’s work. I could draw from them no hints as to its nature, and when I made as if to join them they insisted I wait and talk to Charteris. I acceded begrudgingly (I had no wish to join them in their labours but urgently wanted to escape that accursed cottage for a while).

Left with nothing to do, I pretended to myself that I was making further progress on my translation of the codex and its implications. I allowed Charteris, when he descended with the news that Sprake was sleeping once more, to believe he was interrupting me, but in truth I had no idea where the previous hour or so had gone. The sheet on which I was working was a mass of barely legible scrawls, so different form my common hand, that I could not recall making – nor, indeed, make much sense of – them.

Charteris pecked at his breakfast. He refused to answer any of my questions directly, but he did indicate that my supposition was correct – he did have need of my expertise. He claimed it had never been his intention to reveal anything to me until tomorrow, and now Sprake’s obscure malady prevented him even from showing me the lay of land, which is how he had wanted us to spend this first full day together. But there was no reason it would not be safe for me to walk the circle of the hills around Lower Wirklesworth alone. He would lend me boots, if I needed them, and a stout jacket, ‘You need to get a sense of the place,’ he said, ‘of its shape and antiquity, the ages that are gathered here.’

He thrust a battered old map at me. It dated from the 1870s. ‘By far the most reliable one,’ he explained. ‘Places might not always seem to be where they should. But as long as you stay on the marked paths you should always find your way back into the village. Remember, though, the map is never the territory, and sometimes the territory does not want to be known.’

It was nonsense of the highest order, but the rain had ceased , the skies seemed clear, and some fresh air would be welcome. I did not like to admit to myself that I was anxious to be out of that house.

‘Take some apples,’ he advised. ‘Throw them away if you don’t eat them – they will be bitter by nightfall and rotten by dawn.’

And so I walked up the main road out of the village until it peaked and then left it to commence a widdershins circuit high above Lower Wirklesworth. By noon I was skirting the edge of a gritstone moor. Even to the untrained eye, it was clearly a ceremonial landscape, Neolithic stone circles and burial chambers and other cyclopean remnants bulging here and there out of the riotous heather and ferns. It was there that I noticed the contrast I had not perceived on my arrival as Charteris had driven me over the ridge and into the bowl-shaped valley below. Beyond, the land was full of colour, rich and full, but the peaks of the hills seemed to provide a barrier of sorts, and within them colours faded into a greyness, from fruitful verdure to a grim vegetal enervation.

The moorland gave way to a black tarn, ominous in its placidity. I threw an apple as far out as I could, and it slipped into the opaque waters with barely a ripple.

Emaciated cattle, their sickly eyes a milky white, parted before me, skittish but bone weary.

Within an hour, a thick mist descended and it was all I could do to keep to the path. The grass grew wet and treacherous underfoot. Long before reaching the ruins of Upper Wirklesworth, I made my way down to the village, the circuit incomplete.

At the cottage, Charteris was nowhere to be seen. I found Sprake huddled in an armchair.

Now was not the time, I realised, to fumble my condolences over his wife’s death. I sat with him, though at first he barely acknowledged me. He picked at a patch of mould on the blanket in which he was wrapped. I could not help but stare. When he became aware of my gaze, he smiled and explained: ‘It is everywhere in this valley. Leave your clothes hanging for more than a day and it will appear. If you find it on your skin , scrub it out like the very devil.’ He picked up a twig and showed me the curious growth mottling every inch of it. ‘It’s not a mould or a fungus, not a lichen, not a moss, according to Dyson,’ he said. ‘And every time he sends off a sample to a lab it deliquesces before it reaches them. He is trying to get the equipment here to do his own analysis. Look closely and you will see it on the grass and the trees, even on those rickety cows. It is indiscriminate.’ Somehow in his mouth that word seemed filthy.

He lapsed into silence and soon fell asleep. I, too, was in need of rest. I went inside and lay on my bed. I drifted in and out of consciousness, disturbed once more by that animal scratching. I grew convinced that it was not outside in the eaves as I had thought during the night, but inside the walls. I might have been dreaming.

I awoke at dusk, disturbed no doubt by the sound of the others returning. I threw open my attic window to let some of the mustiness out of the air. It must have startled the squirrel, still gathering food for her young, on the guttering below me. Whatever was in her mouth was still alive.

She turned on me, dropping her prey and rearing up in fury. Through the dull lactescence of her eyes a rage burned. It seemed sentient, prompted by an affront aeons old.

Stifling a scream, I slammed the window shut.

I longed for company yet could not bring myself to join the others.

Later, Charteris brought me up a tray of supper. He looked at me with a knowingness I could not bear. ‘Get some sleep,’ he said, ‘we will speak in the morning.’

I could sense something buried deep inside me emerging.

Not merely the hatred I felt for him in that moment, but something that was not quite part of me. Something that had been summoned.

Day 4 (morning)

My Holiday in the Peak District, day two

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeDay one.

Thanks to my rather ascetic scholarly ways I am accustomed to starting the day while half the world is still a-bed, but this morning I am awake far earlier than I intended. After the events of last night I am unsurprised that my sleep was so fitful, but it was the sound of tiny animals scrabbling among the eaves that finally woke me. I have dim memories of such noises repeatedly disturbing me during the night. As the sun laboured into the sky I finally abandoned my bed and made my way stealthily down through the tight, creaking stairway to the kitchen. I put on the kettle for a fresh pot of tea.

Overnight, to my disgust, the milk had gone off. Its stench turned my stomach.

I drank my tea black. It was bitter stuff. A spoonful of honey made it more palatable.

My first thoughts were, as always, of the translation on which I am working, but as I had left my notes in my luggage and did not fancy stirring from the armchair that looked out over the puddled driveway and into a sodden orchard, I fell to pondering what must have befallen Sprake after we left him at the pub last night.

As with Charteris, I knew Sprake from my undergraduate days at the University of M––––––. An archeologist by training, he had always seemed to take his ancient Anglo-Saxon name – with its connotations of agility and liveliness – quite seriously, devoting considerable energy to carousing in low houses and pursuing women of questionable virtue. As a postgraduate he had developed a more sober persona, and his subsequent academic career saw him metamorphose into something of a ladies’ man, bedding a succession of female students with a discretion that I did not expect. There had been a sudden marriage to a Classics scholar from another university, and within a year he had with equal abruptness found himself a widower. I was not clear how she had died. There was talk of a wasting illness, a lengthy confinement. That was some years ago. I had not attended the funeral and when he returned to the cottage with the others there was no private moment in which to express my belated condolences. The opportunity passed, but I knew at some point I would mutter something awkward that would make us both uncomfortable. There had been a definite decline in the quality of his work since her death, and there was plentiful gossip about his rather unconvincing sexual renaissance as a tweedy, balding lothario.

After a peremptory dinner of bread and cheese, some small tart apples and a rather dry fruitcake purchased at the neighbouring farm, I accompanied Charteris, Sprake and the others through the rain, which was heavier now, into the leaden heart of the village.

Lower Wirklesworth is hidden away low in an odd fold of land. It clings to the banks of a small river prone to flooding when the encircling moorland is sodden, and climbs unsteadily up the steep hills on either side. Like all such villages, it is presided over by a church built on a site whose links to Christian worship can be traced back more than a millennium. Deposited heavily among the higgledy-piggledy houses are several stolid lumps of Victorian civic architecture – a town hall, a school, meeting rooms – provided by the philanthropy of an eminent industrialist who made his fortune from the exploitation of local workers, lured off their failing farms to be indentured, more or less, into his pits and quarries, mills and factories. There used to be a pub on each of the three sides of the triangular marketplace, but only one remains in business. Long and low, it rather resembles a barrow. On entering the dim public bar, I half expected to find the funereal accoutrements and cursed treasure of an ancient king from some race that walked these lands before the coming of Rome.

While the others supped brimming foamy tankards of a local ale, I contented myself with a half-pint of port stout, relishing its slightly bitter tang. They chattered on about this and that, but as if by common consent there was something about which my companions clearly avoided talking. Something they had decided to keep from me, at least for now. I had anticipated this so it did not trouble me greatly. Charteris had obviously invited me here with a purpose in mind. He had unearthed something requiring my expertise, of that I was certain.

Soon Sprake’s attention was drawn to the barmaid, and he began to spend as much time propping up the bar as sitting with us. She had a pallid complexion, and I felt sure that in the barroom’s peculiar light he, up so close, would not be able to discern its rather jaundiced tinge.

Over my second drink, I fell to observing the locals. There was something unappetising about them. Blocky features seemed to blur together, and recur from face to face. Something in their heavy brows hinted at abnormality. They rarely blinked. Their milky eyes indicated a shared, generations-deep imbecility. The village’s isolation and limited gene pool, reaching back through meaningless and obscure centuries divorced from the currents of history, had undoubtedly played its part, and I recalled Charteris mentioning centuries of lead mining in the district. Perhaps the water – and thus the local crops and livestock – had been contaminated, concentrating toxins in the blood and bones – and wombs! – year after year.

They were an unattractive people on the whole, dark and surly. Their thick-fingered clumsy gestures were quite brutish – expressions of their dumb animal nature – yet in the crowded bar they moved around each other with a disturbing grace. Elbows never collided. There was no jostling, and no drinks were spilled. They moved around like bees communicating with each other, as if some ancient shared consciousness animated and choreographed them all. Their mumbled conversation, slurring words together into an incomprehensible hum, only served to confirm this impression. It was only with the greatest of efforts that any would stir themselves to respond to my companions’ attempts to engage with them, but from the little I overheard it was hardly worth the effort involved.

Except, that is, for the barmaid, with whom Sprake seemed to be making his inevitable unsavoury progress.

I attempted to excuse myself early, claiming fatigue from the day’s journey, but Charteris and the others insisted on returning to the cottage with me. Sprake stayed behind.

In truth, I was relieved to have their company. Something about the night had made me anxious about running into the locals when I was on my own. One half expected to find them in the jumbled streets, staring dully at their own reflections in dirty puddles, or yelping at the thin moonlight breaking through the clouds here and there. I dreaded some such encounter.

As we walked, my companions fell silent, as if exhausted.

I was already in bed when he returned a mere hour or so after closing times. He was ashen-faced and gibbering. I have never seen anyone so unmanned. We could get no sense from him.

Charteris eventually got him to his bed and sat with him until he slept.

Little wonder that my night was so disturbed, or that I am up so early.

I have half a mind to return home. Yet I am, I confess, curious about why Charteris summoned me. I realise now that that is what his invitation really was – a summoning. And there is something here that intrigues every bit as much as it repels me.

I will see what the day holds and then make a decision.

Day 3

My Holiday in the Peak District, day one

Dark-clouds-over-Chrome-landscapeMy decision to join Charteris and his friends was rather a last minute affair. His cryptic invitation arrived several weeks ago, but sat unanswered on the mantlepiece. I was determined to take advantage of the summer’s respite to pursue the more laborious aspects of translating an ancient codex, the identity of which I prefer not to reveal until my work is complete. This is no mere academic prissiness or pretension. The codex has been translated before – indeed, by one of my more illustrious predecessors at the university. My researches among the incunabula he bequeathed the library that are held in its sealed room  led me to conclude – at first – that his work, based on a series of peculiar errors, was fatally flawed. However, as during the long hot evenings I pondered these mistakes and the paths down which they had taken him, I began to perceive that it was not a case of mistranslation at all but one of misdirection.

I confess, I was frightened by this realisation. I dispatched a hasty message to Charteris, advising him of the time of my arrival at the nearest train station, on the edge of the Peak district. I packed a bag, shut up the house and, not to put too fine a point on it, fled.

I remember little of the journey. My mind was in such turmoil that even the several changes of train, with all the loitering on draughty, dank and increasingly rural platforms they involved, barely registered. At some point, a fellow traveller commented on a stretch of one of the branch lines supposedly being the most beautiful in the country. I grunted concurrence though in truth I had not noticed.

Charteris met me at the station and whisked me away past fields and through country lanes, the verdancy of which seemed somehow obscene.

We had not spoken in a number of years, and conversation did not seem inclined to flow.

The cottage Charteris has rented is rather narrow. It strikes me as too small for all of us. We shall see when his companions return from their day’s excursion. I can always book into a local inn if their presence and proximity becomes too onerous.

In truth, I am beginning to feel rather foolish. I am not one to act in haste, nor am I commonly prey to the weird fancies that now preoccupy me.

Outside, dark clouds are massed in the sky and the rain has started. It is the kind of thin drizzle, little more than a mist, which will soak through everything and leave the place smelling of damp wool. In the tree by my window, a squirrel is busy bringing in food to its nest. Perhaps it has young to feed? I shake my head – the habits of Rodentia are hardly within the purview of my concerns. Besides, Charteris tells me as we struggle to converse over the pot of thick black tea he made while I unpacked, it is the wrong season.

Day 2